At a recent dinner, the hostess’s cousin rudely spent most of the evening thumbing through his BlackBerry. Upon returning home, I received an e-mail from an acquaintance: “How was dinner at Elaine’s?” When I asked how he knew I was there, he said Elaine’s cousin had Twittered my presence. (I’m known for my business accomplishments, but I’m a private person and felt violated). Days later, I dined with an old business colleague, and got Twittered again. I came home to four forwarded e-mails he’d received from our former colleagues, one of whom invented from whole cloth an anecdote painting us as great friends. (He’d actually tried to get me fired.)
Again, I felt my privacy had been violated. What are the rules here, for the Twitterer and their unwitting victim?
Suddenly, everybody’s internationally famous. Not because they write like Cormac McCarthy, or they’re co-starring with Robert De Niro, or they saved 30 people’s lives, but because they posted a 30-second clip of their dog wearing sunglasses.
We’ve come to the point where everyone — from assassins and terrorists to 8-year-olds — has in their pocket a level of telecommunications power that, just decades ago, would have taken up an entire wing at MIT. This is simultaneously thrilling and terrible. The average person now has the power to expose injustice, ruin lives, and upload video of you picking your nose in your car that’s viewed around the world before you even have a chance to roll and flick.
If you’re a movie star, spare us the whine that you can’t make tens of millions of dollars on a movie and also pick up a quart of milk without having 100 lenses trained on you to see whether you go for skim or 2 percent.
But, as an ordinary (or relatively ordinary) citizen at a private dinner party, you do have the expectation of privacy. Sure, assume people might tell a friend or two something you said, but nobody has the right to release your whereabouts and dinner conversation to your friends, enemies, and five utter strangers who now get mobile broadband on their houseboat in Belarus.
In general, people think (other!) people are ruder than ever, but as I explain in my new book, I See Rude People: One woman’s battle to beat some manners into impolite society, rudeness is actually the human condition.
People are, by nature, self-absorbed, they’ve always been self-absorbed, and these gizmos bring out the worst in them (they don’t call it the iPhone for nothing).
In the absence of social norms for device use and abuse, many people with these wireless binkies are essentially chimps with nukes. But the root of manners is empathy — stepping away from yourself and your gadget and asking, “Wait … is there some tiny chance in hell this guy doesn’t want his whereabouts published for an international audience?” Unfortunately, the thumb jockey at Elaine’s dinner apparently leapt straight to “Hmmm, he seems important … if I tweet about him, I’ll seem important!” (And then, it’s back to his regular profundities like “late to yoga” and “I had the ham.”)
Just as we’re forced to ask grown adults barking into cell phones to “please use your inside voice,” we need to get proactive about our privacy. Because it’s presumptuous to set policy for a party you aren’t giving, you might tell future hosts about your experiences with these antisocial networkers — hinting at the need to announce a “what happens at dinner stays at dinner” media embargo. Guests will have to satisfy themselves with being rude in old-fashioned ways — hogging the mashed potatoes, passing gas and glaring at the person next to them, and rummaging through the host’s medicine chest … but refraining from uploading a shot of its contents to Flickr.
Keep yore big trap shut
Twenty-five years ago, when I was 18, I had a several-month affair with an older married woman, ending when I met my wife. The woman’s still with her husband, who still hates me. My wife knows nothing about the affair, but we live in a small town and are starting to run into these two at parties. Should I reveal any of this to our mutual friends? It would make things less awkward when we’re all together.
— Boy Toy Of Yore
Yes, nothing to make small-town life less socially awkward than standing up at some event, clinking your glass with a butter knife, and announcing, “Guess whose wife I had sex with!” Come on, what you’re really interested in lessening is your load of guilt by opening up a really old can of worms and passing them around at parties. Sorry, Kitten. Part of the job description of being a 43-year-old man is living with your mistakes — terrible as it must be, getting the occasional squinty-eye or cold shoulder from the guy who came home to your acid-washed jeans on his bedroom floor.